New and change are words that have not been well received through the agricultural community in the past. However, in recent times, most cattlemen will readily accept something new, if it is justified from a cost standpoint. Every segment of the beef industry strives for continued improvement. The vast support group on the research end constantly works to find new ways to market products, store data and most importantly, identify tools that will help cattlemen in the selection process.
Deciding which tools that will not only help their customers, but also add to the bottom line is one of the greatest quandaries the seedstock producer faces. Simple performance figures, ultrasound, Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) and most recently, DNA markers that identify traits underneath as well as outside the hide are the tools available to help cattlemen make genetic improvement.
“We have used the DNA technology to identify homozygous polled and black cattle. This test lets our customer know for sure, where tests for marbling and tenderness just predict,” says Jerry Wulf, Wulf Limousin, Morris, Minnesota.
“We have to try new things, we can't stand still. DNA testing is not a cure all, but hopefully it is a step in the right direction. Polled and color genes have paid off quickly, because my customers want to know,” says Lance Sennett, Sennett Cattle Co., Waynetown, Indiana.
“DNA testing for polled and color works for us, but we haven't done any marbling and tenderness tests. I think DNA testing is at the same stage ultrasound was a few years ago. Before long, to stay competitive, you'll have to do it,” says Mat Lewis, Lewis Limousin, Illiff, Colorado. Lewis also operates a sale management company, in addition to his cow herd.
“There is a great opportunity for the polled and color test for the Continental breeds. It is a little premature for us to market cattle based on DNA markers for tenderness and marbling. We are still trying to educate cattlemen on the value of EPDs and we haven't seen the demand for some of the new technology,” says Mike Hall, Beef Specialist, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Hall is in charge of the purebred Limousin herd and runs the bull test.
The size and scope of the operation have a bearing on how quickly technology is being put to use. Some of these tools are cost prohibitive, while some criteria have become expected by potential customers. As cattlemen look to the future, emphasis is being placed on multiple-trait cattle that will add profitability to the calf crop.
“I have DNA tested all my donor cows and we'll usually test the top-end of the bulls and replacement heifers. When the GeneStar test came out, I investigated it and liked the potential. So far, I have been happy with the results,” Sennett says. “The DNA test for marbling and tenderness is a very good tool, but I have to use it in combination with ultrasound for best results. There are few times I have been surprised when I compare actual ultrasound data with the DNA test, but not often.”
“Our customers look for homo polled cattle and they will pay a premium. It is nice to have a test where we can identify this trait for them,” Wulf says. “We started scanning our bulls 12 years ago because it was necessary. Our customers were already getting a carcass EPD. By adding the scan data, we were doubling the information to more accurately predict future performance. At the same time, more actual data will improve the accuracy of EPDs.”
“Optimum EPD profiles are a challenge. We have too much performance in some cases for our environment,” Hall says. “When it comes to selection it depends on the breed. For most terminal sire breeds, buyers are still focused on growth and pounds.
“We're in a fairly Angus dominated area and there is a great demand for homozygous black cattle. The test for homo polled is a little costly at this point, but we have seen definite returns,” Lewis says. “Especially on the breeder quality bulls, getting this data really pays off. I think homo polled is going to be very important to merchandising semen in the future.”
Even though a lot of new information has come to the forefront of the industry, most seedstock producers still keep a watchful eye on their marketplace. Being in tune with customer demands will help identify new technology that needs to be investigated and provide the stamp of approval for selection tools that are used year after year.
“I have to simplify the buying process. I like to provide the basic information and let the buyers, who are looking for more information, ask for it based on their comfort level. I don't want to give him a reason not to buy a bull because I have confused him,” Lewis says. “As a purebred breeder, when I buy a bull or purchase semen, I look for what I want phenotypically and then try to add as many traits to that package as I can. I wouldn't buy a bull unless he had scan data and if he's homozygous black I am going to be willing to pay a premium.”
“Scan data and collecting actual carcass data have to be used in combination,” Wulf says. “We are strong advocates of collecting actual carcass data. Scan data enhances this information, but does not replace it.”
With all the different information available, it is sometimes a struggle for commercial cattlemen to digest it all. However, most progressive commercial cattlemen often have a checklist based on what the operation's goals are for the next year. To help customers simplify the selection process, the Wulf family developed a bull buyer index.
“Our index is a ranking of the bulls based on the end-point target. We rank them in several different production scenarios because if a guy is shooting for a Laura's Lean market he needs a different bull than if he was looking at a high marbling target,” Wulf says. “We call it a customer service tool, but it sure has made my life easier. We collect carcass data on 10,000 to 12,000 head of customer calves every year. Based on harvest data, I can more accurately make recommendations to my customers where they need to improve. Basically, if a producer knows his end-point target we have ranked the bulls for seven different end targets, placing emphasis on profitability.”
Wulf explains these indexes also take into account if the customer is in a terminal crossbreeding program or trying to keep replacement heifers. Each scenario places proper emphasis on the information needed, i.e. if a producer's target is a mainstream market from a terminal standpoint, milk is not a factor in the ranking.
Cattlemen are looking to create a blend of the right genetics. By taking each of these things in small doses, producers can work at their own pace to incorporate technology into their cow herd.
“They are working on DNA markers that help identify various factors of reproductive efficiency and stayability. This excites me because we need to look beyond EPDs to measure these kinds of traits,” Hall says. “It showed a lot of forward thinking for NALF to use the Angus base for their EPDs and it has been good to incorporate ultrasound data into carcass figures.”
Most of the time producers are looking for that specific piece of the puzzle that fits their program. This can be based on many different things. Geographic area has a lot to do with demand, but something as simple as price may also be a driving force where bull buying decisions are made. Seedstock producers, whether large or small, must place emphasis on their market audience to garner premiums. Maximizing dollars returned helps paint a good profit picture.
“We are not a big outfit and we have some economic thresholds we must maintain to stay profitable. Our main goal is to produce a consistent string of commercial bulls. If new technology can better describe my bulls, add value to them and my customer's calf crop, I am going to be excited about spending my money,” Lewis says. “You have to tailor your product to the buying audience. We exhibited a pen of bulls in Denver for the first time this year. I did a lot of testing on those bulls. I tried to have as much information on those cattle as I could. I think it paid off because we were marketing our bulls to different audience.”
“By providing our index, we have summarized a whole bunch of data. This should simplify the selection process and make it more accurate,” Wulf says. “I am real happy with our formula, but I am still struggling on how to present the indexes to our customers in a more user-friendly manner.”
“Some of my commercial customers want to know everything they can about their purchase, while others haven't realized the value of information,” Sennett says. “For my market the cattle still have to have a certain look. I have a diverse market and the show cattle segment continues to pay some bills at my place because of the area we are in.”
When it is all said and done, new technology will always be available for breeders to take advantage of; however, production technology must be utilized to take full benefit of the data that has been collected. Merging the two philosophies will hopefully help improve the industry as a whole.
“I'll use the DNA technology when I mate my cows. There is no sense using an Angus bull to make halfbloods if he's a one star for marbling. I have to use this technology, especially with my top cows because that where it pays off the most,” Sennett says. “Things have to change for them to keep improving. The more information you know speeds up the process for making better cattle and better carcasses.”
“It is a big balancing act. The more information we have, the more confident we are in what we're doing,” Lewis says. “I am aware these are all tools that I can use to select potential herd sires and AI sires, but it's a constant educational process and we have to be careful not to overwhelm our buyers.”
“Never before have we had the tools for selection we have today. Hopefully, we can use some of them to make up for the mistakes we have made in the past,” Hall says. “We have just tapped the surface with DNA technology and we have to continue balanced trait selection. We have to always look where the profit is and continue to take care of the cow herd.”
“Artificial insemination is the most cost effective thing you can do in the industry. First you have to get the cows bred, open cows will cost you a lot of money. Second get them bred to the best bull possible. All the data we collect tells you which straw of semen to use,” Wulf says. “The key is using all the tools available to create the best matings.”